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Fish Girl creators talk writing mermaids and blending fantasy with reality

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Reality gets a splash of fantasy in Fish Girl.

The middle grade graphic novel from three-time Caldecott medal winning illustrator David Wiesner (Mr. Wuffles) and Golden Kite-winning writer Donna Jo Napoli (Stones in Water), tells the story of Mira, a young mermaid who resides in a boardwalk aquarium, in the care of Neptune, the aquarium’s owner. But when the titular “fish girl” befriends Lisa, a girl who stumbles upon her during a visit, she starts testing the boundaries of her world, eager to see what lies outside the aquarium. In turn, this propels Mira to learn more about herself and what she’s capable of.

With Fish Girl coming out on March 7, EW caught up with Wiesner and Napoli to discuss their underwater inspirations and combining the real with the fantastical.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What inspired the idea for Fish Girl?
DAVID WIESNER: During my last year at the Rhode Island School of Design I began visually exploring the combination of fish and architecture—specifically, old brownstone buildings. Over the years this idea narrowed down to a building full of water, full of fish. I tried a number of times to make a picture book out of this, but it began to feel bigger than a picture book. With my lifelong interest in comic books and the rise of graphic novels, I looked forward to working on a long form story. When the idea of using a mermaid entered the drawings, I felt I was ready to try and develop it into a book. I then thought of my long time friend, Donna Jo. She’s an amazing writer, an expert on folk tales, and had written a book about mermaids. I called her up and she immediately said she was in. We sat and talked and looked at all my drawings and focused on the ones that felt they belonged in the same world. I thought she might write out some rough ideas, but she very quickly did a draft of a complete story.
DONNA JO NAPOLI: I worked initially from a small set of drawings David had done–It was like looking at someone’s photograph album–and seeing just a few pictures and trying to figure out what kind of life they led. The ideas for where to go with the story seemed to form on their own. If you’re a mermaid in the sea, your situation is very different from if you’re a mermaid in a glass box. So the power struggle was built into the situation. [Also] I am a linguist, so the pertinence of language to any situation is always apparent to me. The fact that our mermaid does not talk to anyone and has communicative interaction only with the man who keeps her alive painted the tone of the story. He’s her source of information. That makes him godlike. And he certainly promotes that conception.  This is an abusive relationship–with analogies to many kinds of real situations in the world.

Neptune, the aquarium owner, tells Mira a lot of stories about mermaids and even sirens. Did you have to do any research into mermaid myths and stories for any of them?
WIESNER: I knew Donna Jo had a wealth of knowledge about mer-folk. As for myself, if you know my picture books, you know I have a long-standing fascination with ocean creatures. Also, one of my favorite images has always been the 1910 painting, The Mermaid, by Howard Pyle. Early in my career, I did an homage to that painting for a book of short stories about mer-creatures written by Jane Yolen called Neptune Rising: Songs and Tales of the Undersea Folk.
NAPOLI: I wrote a YA novel called Sirena [about a mermaid that falls in love with a soldier]. It came out in 1998. I did an enormous amount of reading in classical literature (not modern literature) on mermaids. I also did an enormous amount of reading about sea creatures—I knew a lot about the intelligence of octopi, for example. So I already had that under my belt.

How would you describe the relationship between Neptune and Mira?
NAPOLI: Above I called it abusive. But I also see him as a pathetic character. Given what Mira sees in his photo album, it seems he simply caught her, along with Octopus, in his net. He was thrown into a situation he didn’t create and hadn’t thought through and he wound up doing something very understandable–though it turned out cruel: he made her his captive. But it doesn’t end there because she turned out to be much more complex than a fish.  He is a lonely, sad man. Mira becomes his world as much as he becomes hers. He needs her for more than money; she relies on him so much that in her eyes he is strong and generous. She allows him to be proud of himself. [But] as she changes, the balance of power shifts hideously for him. It is like losing a daughter [or] being a god and losing all the faithful. He no longer understands his own place in the world.

But he is an adult–and Mira is not. The responsibility falls on him, no matter how pathetic he may be.  She must leave him to take care of himself. And she must search for help in the larger world so that she can manage to go on without him.

Annie Hosfeld; courtesy Donna Jo Napoli

One of the themes in Fish Girl is this blending of fantasy and reality. How did both of you approach depicting that aspect of the story?
NAPOLI: I’m just a word person–but I did give David feedback on illustrations as we went. We both tried for the most realistic story possible. Yes, you have to buy into the idea that mermaids exist. But that’s all. Once you make that giant leap, everything should be logical within the real world.
WIESNER: I wanted to create a typical seaside boardwalk environment for her and the “house full of fish.” [So] I went down to the Jersey shore for reference–the boardwalk structure, arcades, what people would be wearing, etc. I built a model of the boardwalk, the house and the beach and brought home a bucket full of sand, which I returned to the beach five years later when we were done. I went into a brownstone in Brooklyn to get architectural details and to recall the feel of the spaces, because I used to live in one. I [also] found a young girl from a local school who is on a swim team and filmed her swimming underwater to see the way she moved. These are things I do in my picture books. I want to create what feels like a believable world where this amazing thing is happening.

The art style is very realistic, what do you think that adds to the more fantastical elements of the story?
NAPOLI: To me, the art is exactly in the spirit of the narrative. We are not offering escapist literature or some mild fantasy. We are presenting a child in trouble and how very hard it is to climb one’s way out of trouble–how much depends on the accident of an outsider like Lisa who just happens to take the time to probe and how much depends on the loyalty of a friend like Octopus who might not understand what is going on but knows that it’s crucial to support it. It’s not just courage and hard work that help you out of trouble; it’s also a fair amount of luck in finding those aids.

This story could have been about a real girl,  sold into sex or any other kind of slavery at any point in history, including today.  But we’ve extracted away from a particular kind of girl in a particular time. Dealing with a mermaid allows anyone to imagine the situation and how they would feel. It takes us away from the particulars of any political situation and plops us into the ethical questions that are timeless and placeless. The sea is so perfect for this–so vast and so unlimited in who inhabits it. 

You can see some pages from Fish Girl below.

David Wiesner

Fish Girl preview
David Wiesner

David Wiesner